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Lawyers and supporters hold rainbow flags and a banner outside Sapporo District Court in Sapporo, Japan, March 17, 2021.  © 2021 Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News via AP

It was quite something to see a district court judge break into tears as she read her verdict declaring the denial of marriage registration to same-sex couples in Japan unconstitutional.

It’s a significant and emotional moment in Japan for a court to affirm the dignity of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in such clear and unambiguous terms. Declaring that laws that deprive same-sex couples of the legal benefits of marriage constituted “discriminatory treatment without a rational basis” is a groundbreaking ruling in the long-fought battle for marriage equality. But it is also reflects the urgent need for the Japanese national government to catch up with its citizens’ opinions and other rights-respecting countries.

Public support for LGBT equality has surged in Japan in recent years. This includes the broad public outcry when the media has mocked gay and transgender people. A 2020 nationwide public opinion survey found that 88 percent “agree or somewhat agree” with the “introduction of laws or ordinances that ban bullying and discrimination (in relation to sexual minorities),” and nearly 80 percent support same-sex marriage rights. Dozens of prefecture and municipal governments have passed ordinances recognizing same-sex relationships with certificates. But these unofficial documents are not legally binding. Hundreds of domestic and international advocacy groups have written to the prime minister this year encouraging increased protections for LGBT people.

Although Japan has increasingly taken a leadership role at the United Nations by voting for both the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions calling for an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBT people in Japan continue to face intense social pressure, and have fewer legal protections than their peers abroad. Japan remains the only G7 country that does not recognize same-sex relationships.

More verdicts are expected in similar cases, but Japan’s Supreme Court will eventually decide whether the Diet needs to amend the law to recognize same-sex relationships or not. This will be several years away, but yesterday’s ruling will boost the already-supportive Japanese public opinion on marriage equality, which will in turn make it harder for the Supreme Court to neglect.

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